For decades, from the time of Tribhuvandas Patel and Verghese Kurien, Amul has been synonymous with the small farmer or landless labourer deriving subsistence income from selling a few litres of milk to the village cooperative society.

In 2011-12, the dairy unions affiliated to Amul — that is, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) — procured an average of 97 lakh litres of milk daily from nearly 32 lakh producer-members. Assuming only three-fourths to be active pourers, it would work out to just 4 litres each.

But this picture of a cooperative exclusively for poor producers has been undergoing a subtle change in recent times. A small, yet steadily rising, share of milk that the Amul unions are collecting is coming now from farmers keeping ten or more milch animals.

Such dairy farms, considered ‘large’ by Amul standards and known as tabelas , number over 4,600. Of them, an estimated 4,000 have individual herd sizes of 10-25 cows or buffaloes, while 550 are in the 26-50 and 54 in the 51-75 animals range. Even bigger are the 14 producers (7 pouring to the Kheda union, 4 to Mehsana, 2 to Surat and one to Banaskantha) keeping 76 to 100 animals, and 11 who have more than 100 (7 in Kheda and 4 in Mehsana).

Milk in bulk

The above tabelas , put together, are currently reckoned to account for about 85,500 animals. If 50,000 or so are ‘in milk’ at any given point, producing 10 litres each, Amul’s procurement from these farms would average 5 lakh litres a day. That could see a significant increase over time.

Take Shirishbhai Vithalbhai Patel from Chikhodra, 4 km from Amul’s Anand dairy. This 47-year-old farmer has 200 cows and 60 heifers, and sells 1,800 litres daily.

His animals are entirely machine-milked at a parlour, operating from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning and likewise in the evening. The parlour consists of 12 ‘Vansun’ milking machines, from where the milk is conveyed via pipelines to a 3,100-litre ‘Serap’ bulk cooler that chills it to 4 degrees Celsius.

Shirishbhai is formally a member of the Chikhodra village society, but that is basically for accounting purposes: The milk from his bulk cooler is lifted directly by the Amul dairy tanker.

Shirishbhai started off in 1982 by selling 90 litres daily from 15 buffaloes, which he raised to 60 over the next five years. In 1990, he bought 15 cross-bred Holsteins, which was the precursor to dispensing with buffaloes totally.

“Buffaloes take 45 months for their first calving, whereas it only 28-30 in cows. Although buffalo milk fetches a better price due to higher fat content, production falls heavily in summers and you cannot run a large dairy farm with them”, he observes.

Shirishbhai has invested almost Rs 16 lakh in the parlour: Rs 7.2 lakh on the bulk cooler, Rs 3.6 lakh on milking machines, Rs 3 lakh on basic construction and Rs 1.8 lakh on pipelines.

Where the money is bonus

“I now get paid Rs 20.8 a litre. Half of it goes to meet cattlefeed costs, while fodder (20 per cent), labour (15 per cent), electricity (5 per cent) and interest-cum-depreciation (10 per cent) take up the rest. The profit I earn is from the bonus that the society distributes out of its surpluses after the year-end settlement of accounts with the union. That comes to roughly 18 per cent or an additional Rs 3.6”, he adds.

According to Girishbhai Jethabhai Patel from Davalpura in Petlad taluka of Anand, the viability of large-scale dairying depends largely on managing labour and fodder costs. Besides, there is electricity. The high horsepower motors in milking parlours require three-phase supply, which is available only at commercial rates of Rs 8-plus and not at Rs 3-3.5 a unit for farm use.

Girishbhai too originally reared buffaloes, before shifting to cows from 2006. Today, he supplies up to 2,200 litres daily from a herd of 210 cows and 100 heifers. The 38-year-old has also installed an integrated ‘DeLaval’ parlour costing Rs 14 lakh, capable of milking 12 animals at a time over 5-10 minutes.

Both Shirishbhai and Girishbhai own land on which they exclusively grow green fodder — jowar and bajra after monsoon, and maize and lucerne during winter — harvested after 50-60 days. “My 25 acres generates 75 per cent of my fodder requirement. The balance I have to purchase at Rs 5/kg”, explains Girishbhai.

The Patel cometh home

But not everyone has so much land. Shirishbhai’s 20 acres have come from his grandfather, Bhikhabhai Lallubhai Patel. “He had only two sons — my father, Vithalbhai, and uncle, Ravjibhai. My brother, Ravindrabhai owns a convenience store in South Carolina, while my uncle’s one son has the same at Chicago and other son a motel in New Jersey. So, this land is mine”, he says in a matter-of-fact tone.

Shirishbhai engages 13 workers in his dairy farm and another 15 for fodder cultivation. Tabela owners typically entrust the job of labour management to a mukadam (contractor).

Girishbhai’s mukadam , Musafir Yadav, is from Bihar, who gets Rs 5,500 per month along with a Rs 750 commission for every labourer he brings.

The labourers themselves are paid Rs 5,500 a month plus a litre of milk daily. Yadav being around helps Girishbhai to also attend to his other businesses of a roadside restaurant and a banquet hall.

“Milk gives only 18-20 per cent return, but it is safe since there is somebody (Amul) to take care of marketing”, Girishbhai points out. That explains why even some expats — especially those of Patidar stock — are getting attracted to it.

One such man is Sandip Kantibhai Patel, who left India in 1991 and went on to establish two convenience stores in New Jersey, now being managed by his brother, Nitin. Sandip returned early this year and has just bought seven cows, with plans to increase it to 100.

“I have three acres of my own and will lease in more to grow fodder. I am already selling 80 litres daily to the Kavitha milk society (in Anand’s Borsad taluka)”, informs Sandip.

Small tends to large

But will not the likes of Shirishbhai, Girishbhai and Sandip compromise the character of Amul? “Not really. The tabelas and small producers can coexist”, asserts R.S. Sodhi, Managing Director, GCMMF.

Sodhi terms the tabelas as “second-generation” producers, who approach dairying more as a business than as subsistence activity. “I see nothing wrong in that. The small producer will continue to remain our mainstay. But even they, with time, may graduate to 10-12 animals that are machine-milked”, he notes.

GCMMF is, in fact, consciously encouraging this transition, with some unions extending up to 50 per cent subsidy on milking machines. Already, some 4,000 machines — normally costing Rs 50,000 for a standard double-bucket system — have been distributed through this route.

“The feeding, cleaning and milking of animals is done mainly by womenfolk. With education, they would be not as willing to start milking even before sunrise. Milking machines are one way to reduce drudgery and free-up their labour for other purposes”, avers Sodhi.